ANAHEIM, Calif. — Now, with the All-Star break over, the season takes on a new tenor over the rest of the month. Teams will scurry to address their weaknesses in the trade market, but for the Red Sox, the issues of what to do between now and July 31 are tremendously complicated.
That is because, through it all, somewhat miraculously, they have managed to win. Though the Sox limped through a 2-4 record in the final week of the first half, the team’s position at the end of the first half — five games behind the Yankees for first place, three behind the Rays for the wild card — represents a success, given that they nearly could field an entire lineup with players on the DL.
“It’s crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it on any level. But I’ve never seen anything like guys stepping up and filling roles like they have,” said Sox All-Star pitcher Jon Lester. “Obviously, I don’t think anyone’s real happy with where we’re at in the standings, but we could be a hell of a lot worse. There are definitely a lot of positives involved.”
The team finished the first half with three All-Star representatives — Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez and Clay Buchholz — on the DL. They are joined by the team’s leadoff hitter, Jacoby Ellsbury, who has played all of nine games this year — the same number as Eric Patterson, and a fraction of the contests in which Darnell McDonald and Daniel Nava have appeared.
The Opening Day starter (Josh Beckett) was last seen on a big league mound nearly two months ago. A setup man (Manny Delcarmen), the primary outfield option off the bench (Jeremy Hermida), the backup corner infielder (Mike Lowell) and a middle infield depth option (Jed Lowrie) all are sidelined. The Sox have been in a position where they’ve been sending carloads of players to hospitals to get MRIs.
“That isn’t a fun field trip,” said Buchholz.
It has been an incredible run of injuries, and yet the Sox remain in the hunt for October.
“All things considered, we’ve done a really good job. We need to keep winning as many as we can until we get all our regulars back and we’ll be in a position for a really good second half as we get healthier and healthier,” general manager Theo Epstein said on Sunday. “We’ve gotten a lot of contributions from unexpected sources. That’s kept us winning games at a pretty good clip, all things told.”
Yet, the fact that the Sox are in contention does not make their picture terribly clear. To the contrary, the team’s outlook is filled with elements that are unpredictable, making it very difficult to anticipate what the team can or should do to address its weaknesses.
In the last two years, the Sox made impact trades at the deadline that made them stronger not just for the remainder of those seasons but beyond. Jason Bay and Victor Martinez represented precisely what the Red Sox needed.
This year, the landscape is different. According to major league sources, the trade market is a less promising avenue to improvement for a number of reasons:
-- The injuries create a rather confounding set of issues. The Sox have obvious short-term weaknesses that are almost impossible to fix via trade.
Middle-of-the-field impact players are among the most difficult commodities to find in baseball. The Sox have three who are current or potential stars in Martinez, Pedroia and Ellsbury, yet all are sidelined. Finding comparable talents on the market is an almost impossible undertaking.
-- The Sox would not mortgage a substantial piece of the future in order to fill holes that are short-term, and that will be filled during the season by the return of the MASH unit. But while all of the Sox’ players are expected back, the precise dates of the players’ returns are uncertain.
“I think that makes it a lot tougher. You can’t set a date for rehab stuff,” Buchholz said. “I don’t think they’re going to know anything about [Pedroia] or [Martinez] until we get back [to Boston from the All-Star Game] and they get re-evaluated, and they could take longer or shorter than expected. You don’t know. Hopefully it’s shorter for everybody.”
-- Overall, the trade landscape is far more limited this year than it was last year. The 2009 trade deadline, in retrospect, presented a somewhat startling array of possibilities. Adrian Gonzalez, Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee were all possibilities whom the Sox discussed before landing Martinez.
This year, Lee has moved, and the level of impact players behind him is not at the same level as last year’s treasure trove. Aside, perhaps, from Jayson Werth and Adam Dunn, it is difficult to identify difference-makers who represent likely pieces on the market.
-- The Red Sox don’t necessarily have the ability to acquire key players in terms of prospects. A year ago, the Sox could move players who were either major league ready or actually in the majors. Both Clay Buchholz and Justin Masterson could anchor attractive packages.
This year, Masterson is gone and Buchholz has become a building block for the Sox’ long-term designs. The Sox do not have equivalent big league-ready chips to serve as the centerpiece of a deal this season.
The Sox do have Lars Anderson, Ryan Kalish and Josh Reddick in Triple-A Pawtucket, all of whom could represent solid pieces of a prospect package, yet none of whom are likely to be seen as a safe bet for the majors just yet.
The Sox, moreover, still believe in the potential of that trio to the point where they would not give up any of them unless it was as part of a package for a star-caliber player.
-- The Sox don’t necessarily have the payroll that they did in recent seasons to take on a player with a major price tag for the remainder of the year. The Sox already have a record payroll this year that will push them over the luxury tax threshold. Taking on more money is not the slam dunk that it has been in the last couple of seasons.
None of that rules out the possibility of deals. As has been well documented, the Sox under Epstein have been one of the most aggressive and creative teams in the majors in addressing mid-year needs through the trade market, finding ways large (Bay, Martinez, the four-team Nomar Garciaparra deal) and small (Tony Graffanino) to add reinforcements in the middle of the season. This year -- despite all of those limitations and challenges -- may prove no different.
And this year, despite the challenges of the trade market, there will be opportunities for the Sox to improve. In particular, the team’s deficiencies in the bullpen (a 4.71 ERA that ranks 13th among the 14 AL teams) are more than just a matter of health.
Meanwhile, the Sox must make a determination whether their outfield struggles (as a group, Sox outfielders rank 13th in the AL in OBP, and 11th in OPS) will be addressed by the returns of Hermida and Ellsbury. Clearly, the fact that the team is exploring the market for a player such as David DeJesus suggests that the team is open to the idea of an upgrade beyond the return of a couple of injured players.
All of that said, the issue of how aggressive the Sox should be in an imperfect trade market is one without simple answers. There are two conflicting schools of thought.
One suggests that the Sox, who have fought so gamely to stay in the race, will receive the boost they need with the return of a number of top players.
“When we get everyone back healthy plus the guys who are playing now, I think we’re good,” Buchholz said. “Obviously, it’s not our decision. It’s what the front office wants to do. I’m a firm believer that whenever everyone gets healthy, whenever [Beckett] gets back, [Jason] Varitek, Mike Lowell, Pedroia, Victor, whenever everyone gets healthy, we’ll be fine.”
On the other hand:
“When you get reinforcements, no matter how healthy or unhealthy you are, it’s always a help. I think it’s one of those deals where if we go out and get somebody, it should be a good thing, a help, no matter what role they play,” Lester said. “But if we don’t, it’s like we’re getting eight or nine guys off the DL.”
How the market will play out between now and July 31 remains to be seen, but in one of the more unusual seasons in recent memory for the Red Sox, it would seem inevitable that they will chart a twisting course over the next couple of weeks.